by Howard Stephenson
The Utah Legislature ended its 2002 General Session last Wednesday at midnight, successfully dealing with budget shortfalls without a general tax increase. The $256 million deficit was addressed with spending cuts and a cigarette tax hike of 18 cents per pack, intended to raise $21 million. As I noted in an earlier column in this paper, Utah’s new, nearly 70 cents per pack tax will surely lead to more and more bootlegging, especially from Wyoming whose tax is only 12 cents per pack.
In contrast to this year’s small tax hike, the 1986 legislature responded to similar revenue shortfalls by enacting record $176 million in tax hikes. This lead to a tax revolt and initiative petitions seeking to enact spending limits and tax cuts in addition to tuition tax credits.
All state agencies felt the sting of the this year’s cuts, but the legislature held public education nearly harmless, setting the 2003 education budget only 1.3% below the 2002 revised figure. Higher education saw cuts of only 3%
One measure which would have provided a long-term solution to education funding shortages was the tuition tax credit bill, which failed to obtain passage.
A bill requiring all felons convicted through Utah courts to submit to DNA testing was approved. This may actually reduce public safety budgets over the years ahead as more and more criminals are caught before they are even suspected.
The legislature enacted two measures intended to reduce or eliminate junk e-mail. The first provides for the blocking of “spam” on the Internet and the second provides for similar blocking of pornographic e-mail.
One measure which could enable Utah taxing entities to capture tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal treasury is HJR 30. This is a constitutional amendment which voters will decide this November. The measure would enable state and local entities capture depreciation tax benefits by selling and then leasing back long term assets such as light-rail cars, university buildings and even public school buildings. By allowing the leasing companies to claim the depreciation against their federal tax liability, millions of dollars could be claimed from the federal treasury with no strings attached. There is no telling how long the federal Congress will continue to allow this depreciation tax benefit so it is important that Utah move quickly in claiming the depreciation on our public buildings. I am particularly in favor of this plan because it’s a way of offsetting the fact that the federal government owns more than 70% of the land within Utah and yet doesn’t pay the taxes that would be paid if the land were in private hands.
IT’S ELECTION TIME AGAIN
The day after the legislature adjourned was the first day for filing for public office for the Utah November General Election. All three (and perhaps four) U.S. Congressional seats are up for grabs as are all 75 Utah House of Representatives seats and half of the 29 Utah State Senate seats. County Commission seats are also up for election all over the state this year.
Those seeking public office must file with their county elections clerk or the Lt. Governor by March 18, 2002. For offices in which more than one candidate files from the same political party the nominating process involves convincing convention delegates that you’re the best person for the job. Delegates are selected at party precinct caucuses held in neighborhoods across the state on Monday, March 25, 2002. Salt Lake County Party conventions are held on April 27, while State Party Conventions are conducted on May 11. Party conventions have the option of sending two candidates to the primary election or bypassing the primary and nominating just one candidate for the November election.
It is interesting to note that the Utah Legislature has a high number of legislators whose full-time employment is in the public sector. Consequently, with this mind-set, it is sometimes difficult to win passage of pro-free-enterprise issues such as tuition tax credits. Because of the disproportionate representation from government employees, it is also sometimes difficult to defeat tax increases and to stop government from growing too fast.
I guess what I’m asking is for readers with a business, free-enterprise background to consider running for office this year. Utah citizens deserve to be represented by those who understand how the economy works; by those who have had to meet a payroll and wrestle with government regulations. If you’d like more information on what it takes to run, I’d be happy to talk with you.